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Neonicotinoids and honey bee health in Australia

March 2013 (Updated May 2013)

In August 2012 we announced a review to look at the use of neonicotinoid insecticides (or ‘neonics’) in Australia to see if they present more of a risk to honey bee health than other pesticides that have been in use for many years. We are also reviewing our current data requirements for testing of insecticides to ensure they are adequate to address any potential effects of neonicotinoids on bees.

Current data requirements and label statements

As part of this review, we commissioned an independent expert to provide advice on whether our current data requirements for testing of insecticides are adequate to address scientific concerns about the subtle effects of neonics and other pesticides on honey bees and other insect pollinators.

We also sought advice on pesticides which currently carry bee protection statements and the consistency of the wording in those statements.

This advice has now been provided in a detailed report (PDF, 648kb), which includes five recommendations for the APVMA to consider further as part of this overall review.

These recommendations have been summarised as follows:

  • consider tests available and under development that will improve knowledge of the exposure and effects of pesticides on bees and other insect pollinators, and ensure these are reflected in relevant APVMA data guidelines
  • establish appropriate Australian protection goals for insect pollinators and link data requirements and risk assessment methodology to these goals
  • review the inconsistencies in bee protection statements found on Australian product labels
  • convene a stakeholder workshop to look at the first three recommendations and issues
  • evaluate the increasing amount of data already being submitted with pesticide applications in order to better understand additional studies being conducted on pesticide effects on pollinators.

Recent developments in Europe

On 16 January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released long-awaited risk assessments of three neonicotinoids—clothianidin (external site), imidacloprid (external site) and thiamethoxam (external site). The European Commission (EC) asked EFSA to assess the risks associated with the use of these compounds, with particular regard to their acute and chronic effects on bee colony survival and development; their effects on bee larvae and bee behaviour; and the effects of sub-lethal doses of the compounds.

EFSA concluded that there were some risks to bees from authorised uses, but was unable to finalise assessments for other authorised uses ‘due to shortcomings in the available data’. It also identified data gaps that would need to be filled before regulatory action is taken and some currently-authorised uses that present a low risk to bees. A key point of the EFSA scientific opinion is that ‘there is a trade-off between plant protection and protection of bees’.

On 29 April 2013 the European Commission (EC), in the absence of a majority vote by European member states, moved to suspend for two years (from 1 December 2013) the use of neonicotinoid insecticides on flowering crops such as corn, canola and sunflowers and cotton. The suspension will not apply to crops not attractive to bees, or to winter cereals. This announcement has raised the concerns of a number of Australian stakeholders. The APVMA’s intention is to continue with its preliminary review of the science, which will include consideration of the three EFSA reports that were taken into account in the EC’s suspension decision.

United States update

On 2 May 2013, shortly after the EC announcement, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) held a joint press conference on announcing the release of the proceedings from the National Stakeholder Conference on Honey Bee Health which took place in October 2012. The USEPA advised that it is re-reviewing the neonicotinoids but, taking into account the information available to date, the best management practices that have been initiated, and the benefits that this class of chemicals affords, it considers that a similar set of restrictions in the USA is not warranted at this time.

Scientific literature

Underpinning our review is the need to consider the current body of knowledge on this important issue. A preliminary list of credible scientific reports has now been compiled and we welcome comments from the community on the scope of this list. While the APVMA will endeavour to take into account all relevant and credible science on this issue, it is important that we conclude our review based on a broadly representative selection of the extensive literature.

Although we are still reviewing work that has been undertaken on the effects of neonicotinoids on the health of insect pollinators over the past decade or so, and the ongoing debate as to whether these compounds are safe to use in practice, we note:

  • the publication in mid-2012 of an EFSA report (external site) indicating that further data would be necessary before drawing a definite conclusion on the behavioural effects on insect foragers of exposure to the low levels of neonicotinoids occurring in crops
  • the publication in September 2012 of a report (external site) by the UK Government’s independent Expert Advisory Committee on Pesticides which concluded that there is no evidence as yet of neonicotinoid impacts on bees in the UK and thus no justification to take regulatory action at present
  • industry advice that extensive independent in-field monitoring in Europe and Canada suggests that appropriate use of neonicotinoids using revised stewardship practices can help minimise any risks posed.

Next steps

In the next phase of our review we will examine the three EFSA reports, together with the recommendations of the independent expert report and consider the overall evidence from the scientific literature.

We have sought information from the manufacturers of imidacloprid (Bayer), thiamethoxam (Syngenta) and clothianidin (Sumitomo).

We are also consulting with a wide range of other stakeholders including:

  • national bee experts from the CSIRO, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, the WA Department of Agriculture and Food, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation
  • international experts within other regulatory agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency
  • primary industry associations including Cotton Australia and canola growers
  • bee keepers, honey packers and exporters
  • the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC)
  • Australia’s representatives to a recent Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) global workshop (external site) on insect pollinators and the OECD’s Pesticide Effects on Insect Pollinator Expert Group (external site).

Once we have completed these steps, we will release a draft report for consultation and we are considering opportunities for stakeholders to meet with us in person. We expect to release our draft report in mid-2013.

Depending on the outcomes of this report and consultation with our regulatory partners and key stakeholders, there may be a number of regulatory options available to the APVMA. A formal chemical review, using our powers under the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code Act 1994 is one possibility.

Further information:

Contact:

Chief Regulatory Scientist (Pesticides)

Phone: +61 2 6210 4701
Email: communications@apvma.gov.au

Last updated on 12 August, 2014

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